How low will they go?

As the prices of Gigabit copper Network Interface Cards drop, they will gain greater ground in the market against fiber NICs, according to market analysts. After a year of performance improvements that spurred growth in the server market, Gigabit copper NICs are now primed to grow significantly in 2002.

"In 2001, we saw about 750,000 ports of copper Gigabit sold. In 2002, we expect that number to more than double ," said Seamus Crehan, a senior analyst for Dell'Oro Group in Redwood City, Calif.

When pitted against fiber, the lower cost of copper is the biggest reason customers choose it, said Jeba Sundraraj, product manager of Gigabit Ethernet for 3Com Corp.

Recent history at 3Com illustrates the steady pattern of copper NIC price drops coupled with performance improvements, said John Hagerman, vice president of product management, desktop and server products at 3Com.

For example, in September 2000, 3Com sold Gigabit Ethernet copper NICs at a distributor list price of $395. Then, the PCI bus rate was 64 bits and the speed was 66 MHz.

By March 2001, 3Com had combined a leap in performance with a significant price drop. The company announced a card with a mixture of 32/64 bits running at a combination of triple 33/64/133 MHz speeds for a distributor list price of $219.

The switch contained significant performance improvements, such as auto- negotiating and link aggregation failover. Auto-negotiating automatically senses other components and then sets the bit rate at the highest speed possible. Link aggregation failover allows users to install multiple NICs in a server's multiple PCI slots, then the switch selects which NIC in which PCI slot to use.

In October 2001, 3Com's next generation of Gigabit Ethernet copper NICs had incorporated PCI-X (peripheral component interconnect extended) bus tech.nology, which increased the speed at which data moves within a computer from 66 MHz to 133 MHz.

Today, 3Com's 3C996B-T copper NIC runs at quadruple 33/66/100/133 MHz speeds with a 32/64-bit PCI-X and carries a distributor list price of $169. But this is not the last price drop, especially now that vendors are anxious to move Gigabit copper to desktop computers.

"When vendors make it cheap enough, it will drive the migration of copper-based Gigabit Ethernet to the user or workgroup level," said Chris Kozup, a senior research analyst for the META Group Inc.

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